Aside from the formula for Coca-Cola, no pop culture secret has been more difficult to replicate than Grand Theft Auto's recipe for open-ended videogaming thuggery. A few have had moderate RC Cola-level acceptance, but most have been Crystal Pepsi-sized failures. Finally, however, we have a winner. Saints Row is the Pepsi to GTA's Coke.
Emulating GTA with near-perfect precision - a subversive, satirical sense of humor is the only thing lacking - Saints Row drops your custom-created anti-hero into the fictional city of Stilwater, a seedy metropolis whose four gangs (the Carnales, Vice Kings, Westside Rollerz, and your 3rd Street Saints) vie for control over the town's boroughs.
Each gang has its own mini story arc, and defeating each one requires you to complete a series of missions. They'll range from the usual FedEx-style delivery tasks that run you around the city to more challenging jobs, such as shooting down a rival's private jet before it has a chance to take off... while being shot at by rocket launcher-toting gangsters and pursuing cars.
The missions are, for the most part, fairly enjoyable, but a frustrating handful are aggravated by the massive distances you'll need to travel to reach them. It's not so bad driving for five minutes across the entire city to reach your destination, but when a particularly troublesome task makes you retry the commute several times, you'll be more than ready to shoot someone. A mid-mission checkpoint would have gone a long way towards easing the pain.
Unfortunately, you cannot simply play through the story - you're required to complete reputation meter-filling activities scattered around Stilwater before you can tackle the next plot-driving mission. These activities include everything from GTA's "steal the cars on this list" heists to shotgun-riding drug trafficking jobs to its most creative mini-games: insurance fraud and mayhem.
Each puts Row's stellar Havok physics system to comic use. For insurance fraud, you'll use the controller's left and right triggers to make your avatar's body go limp, allowing you to throw yourself in front of moving cars. You'll earn fraud money based on distance hurtled, witnesses present, etc. Mayhem missions gift you with unlimited ammunition for either your shotgun, automatic rifle or (if you're lucky) rocket launcher and challenges you to cause as much property damage as possible within a certain time limit. Offing group of pedestrians, shooting passing drivers through their windshields and blowing up cars - then watching said vehicles spit out their flaming doors, fenders and occupants - is as satisfying as it is hilarious.
You'll probably find the latter portion of the campaign a bit tedious; you'll likely have picked out your few favorite mission styles and played them to death by the latter stages of the game, but the reputation meter must be filled. Expect on 20 to 25 hours of story-based gameplay, even after the thrill is gone.
Once you've completed the story, however, Saints Row offers several multiplayer modes for up to 12 players. Sadly, however, the potential for open-world multiplayer action goes largely unfulfilled, as most of the modes pit the teams against each other on small, custom maps that give you no opportunity to run free in Stilwater. Only "Blinged Out Ride," in which your team attempts to collect money in order to upgrade and transport its car around the map before the opposition does, even lets a handful of players pile into a car and go to war with human enemies.
Still, Saints Row gets almost everything right that its fellow contenders for the Grand Theft Auto throne could not. It looks good, plays great, offers plenty to do and it's even funny at times - though in a much cruder way than GTA's more sly, subversively socially relevant sense of humor. While no one may ever crack the GTA Coca-Cola code, Saints Row proves that there's plenty of room in the market for the Pepsis of the world too.